Recent theatrical releases of movies are sometimes accompanied by short intros from casts or directors thanking the audience for coming out to see the picture. Edgar Wright recorded a really snooty one for the release of Baby Driver where he took an unnecessary potshot at the concept of Video on Demand distribution. The casts of X-Men: Apocalypse & Resident Evil: The Final Chapter recorded damage control intros that made a point to put human faces on what felt from the outside to be soulless, corporate products. James Franco’s highest-profile directing gig to date, The Disaster Artist, breaks new ground by making this cloying, self-congratulating mode of introduction an actual part of the picture, not just a tagalong video package. The Disaster Artist opens with Franco’s famous friends ironically praising Tommy Wiseau’s toxic trashterpiece The Room as if it were the most important picture ever made. The tone of this intro feels more fitting for the opening notes of an SNL sketch than a feature film, as does Franco’s lead performance as the enigmatic, vaguely European monster Wiseau. Later, there are isolated comedic bits and moments of genuine drama that transcend the tackiness of this intro, but then the movie slips right back into that mode in its final moments, featuring real-life footage of book signings & The Room screenings with Wiseau beaming over his own ironic adoration. In a way, these bookends are a welcome warning that although The Disaster Artist is Franco’s most legitimate, respectable work as a filmmaker to date, it still allows him to indulge at length in his worst impulses, which includes advertising for his own movie as you’re watching it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the amusingly bizarre/misshapen cult classic The Room or the excellent book that details its production (also titled The Disaster Artist), it’s unclear how appealing Franco’s film will be to you. Although The Room is a deeply misogynistic, poorly crafted mess, it has a strange allure to it that invites multiple re-watches, as evidenced by its regular midnight movie circuit screenings, complete with Rocky Horror-style call & response rituals. The book The Disaster Artist only makes The Room more fascinating as a found object, leaving you with more questions than answers about the strangely vampiric millionaire who wrote, financed, “directed”, and starred in it: Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau claims to be “from” my hometown of Chalmette, Louisiana, but has a heavily slurred, Eastern European accent that defies that explanation. He also claims to be decades younger than he very visibly is and skirts all inquiries into how he came to make millions selling counterfeit blue jeans in San Francisco. The more you dig into who Wiseau is as a historical figure and what The Room reveals about his psyche as person, the more fascinating he becomes as an enigma. With his big screen adaptation of The Disaster Artist, it’s unclear exactly how interested Franco is in these mysteries. He breezily skims over many themes & details of The Room’s backstory that could be rewarding if explored at length, but instead fail to register as anything significant as they fly by in a rapid procession. It’s like trying to get to know a popular band through their Greatest Hits collection instead of diving into their album cuts.
Without a strong thematic foundation or point of view, The Disaster Artist plays a little like its worst possible self: an excuse for famous people to play dress-up as a funny looking weirdo who made an infamously bad movie. The good news is that if anyone deserves to be mocked by famous people for their moral & artistic shortcomings, it’s Tommy Wiseau. James Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau may be more fitting of a Celebrity Family Feud sketch on SNL than a feature that supposedly has Oscar-contender ambitions, but he does (occasionally) make a point to highlight his subject’s dark, abusive streak. Hostile temper tantrums that selfishly drag people down to his level and deeply unsettling attitudes towards women & sexuality surface as Wiseau becomes frustrated with his own shortcomings as an artist & a friend. Much like the film’s better comedic bits (an extended sequence where Tommy forgets his own line for so many takes the entire crew knows it better than he does comes to mind), however, these moments of darkness & drama feel isolated & ultimately lead nowhere substantial. This is especially frustrating in a spark of critical thought where the movie highlights how hurtful it is to laugh at an undeveloped artist’s passionate work while also being honest about The Room’s enjoyability solely being a “so-bad-it’s-good” proposition. It’s a thought that’s floated only for an isolated scene or two before Franco quickly moves on to the next Spark Notes-style bullet point on The Room’s legacy, trying to make room for as many of the film’s touchstone details as he can without exploring any in particular at length. I’m not sure that finding a part for every host of the How Did This Get Made? podcast or playing exact recreations of scenes from The Room side by side with their source material was more important than critically or thematically engaging with Wiseau as a toxic enigma, but Franco often slips into that kind of indulgence, to the film’s detriment.
As insane as it is that people are comparing The Disaster Artist to the triumph of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, it does occasionally impress or delight in the same way that classic celebrates the minor victories of an artist ill-equipped. Because Franco doesn’t dive much deeper than that in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it engagement with the darkness of Wiseau’s psyche, there isn’t much more to the movie than that simple idea and the minor pleasures of watching famous comedians mock the failings of a deeply flawed, aggressively amateur auteur. Brigsby Bear is the superior 2017 release that explores the darkness of an emotionally wounded, amusingly eccentric amateur filmmaker creating art directly from the depths of their subconscious. Lady Bird better details the follies of a selfish brat making constant mistakes in an early 00s period piece. Any meticulous recreations of specific scenes from The Room are far more amusing when experienced in the source material. Any questions of Wiseau’s history & character are more thoroughly, thoughtfully explored in Greg Sestero’s book by the same name. So, what exactly does Franco’s The Disaster Artist offer as a work on its own terms? I suppose there are enough successful comedic bits & dramatic moments that feel impactful enough in isolation to be worth your time, but ultimately don’t lead anywhere significant. And since the movie is bookended highlighting Franco’s worst impulses as an artist & a storyteller (the concluding side-by-side recreations from The Room are especially self-indulgent), its best moments aren’t even the first impression that comes to mind.